Jungle-dwellers helped injured survive

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The Independent Online

Michael Paul survived for two days in the jungle, despite being unable to walk. He lived on coconuts and sweet potatoes and drank coconut water. Aboriginal inhabitants of the island showed him and his fellow Indian police officers how to live off the fruits of the jungle.

As survivors are rescued from India's remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, extraordinary stories are beginning to emerge of how they clung to life on islands where all traces of modern civilisation had been wiped out by the tsunami.

Constable Paul was one of six Indian police officers serving a three-month tour of duty on the island of Chowra, which was home to about 1,500 people. More than 900 are still missing.

"When the wave hit, the wall of the building I was in collapsed on me," Constable Paul. "The wave went 3km in to the jungle from the coast, but when it drew out to sea the force lifted the wall back off me. As I was dragged out to sea I grabbed hold of a tree and it saved me."

Constable Paul was badly injured, his hip smashed and his face and body grazed raw. Fellow officers got him into the jungle but they had no link to the outside world. "I didn't even have any clothes," Constable Paul said. "My clothes were dragged off me by the sea."

The officers had no idea how to survive in the jungle, but locals helped. "They have these sweet potatoes that grow naturally in the jungle. I had never eaten them before, but the tribal people showed us how to get them. You eat them raw."

Finally, two days later, Constable Paul was evacuated by helicopter to Port Blair, the capital of the Andamans, where he is being treated in hospital.

The Indian government's claims that the death toll in the Andamans and Nicobars could be as low as 3,000 are looking more and more hollow. More than 10,000 people are unaccounted for on the island of Car Nicobar alone. One aid worker said he believed the real death toll could be as high as 15,000.

Car Nicobar, where several villages were obliterated, has dominated news coverage, but it is not the only affected island. M.T. Naidu told yesterday how he too had to survive for three days in remote jungle on the island of Little Andaman.

Mr Naidu, who as also injured, said: "My wife had to walk 4km through the jungle to fill a little bottle of water and bring it back to us."

Mr Naidu described scenes of devastation on the Hut Bay coast of Little Andaman, where he lived. "For 14km from the coast everything has totally collapsed: buildings, trees, everything," he said. "There are 7,000 people still there in the hills, waiting to be rescued.

"I have lived in Little Andaman for 30 years but tomorrow I am going back to the mainland. I had a good life, I had a good house, a TV - now it's all gone, in two minutes."

On another ward a boy lies wrapped tightly in a blanket. Hilary, who is 14 years old, and his brother were with his mother on Car Nicobar. His father was working on another island, and an elder brother in Port Blair.

Hilary's mother and brother died when the tsunami hit Car Nicobar. Running away, he broke his leg on a rock but he clung to a coconut palm as the wave wrought destruction all around. He clung to it for hour after hour - he is not sure how long, but says he was still holding on to the tree in the evening, although the tsunami hit in the morning.